For public art in the Boston area, competing interests and big questions
LYNN — The train grinds to a slow halt above Lynn’s Central Square, steel on steel complaining loudly on a hot summer day. It was, until recently, a bleak scene: a crumbling commuter rail station looming over a withered streetscape amid the long, slow slide of this industrial city.
From the train window, that’s no longer the story downtown Lynn tells: A black man and white woman tower three stories high, cobbling shoes, a nod to one of Lynn’s longtime industries. A block away, a woman with hair in tight rollers casts an impassive glance over her shoulder, her face framed by neon-green palm fronds. Across the street from her, a kinetic scrabble of orange and blue runs the height of a five-story brick building like an electric charge. And a few doors down, a towering shaman-like figure wreathed in strings of multicolored beads cradles a conch close to his mouth, eyes closed. It’s so vibrant and alive, you can all but hear its low tone echoing through the streets.
“We always knew there was something special about this place, but it was hard to see it,” said Al Wilson, who founded the nonprofit Beyond Walls in 2016, on a recent walk through downtown, color bursting from the murals that his group made possible on almost every corner. “We have this incredibly diverse community, we have a downtown arts district, but there was no art, and businesses were dying because people wouldn’t come down here. That’s what we wanted to change.”
If I were to draw up an idealized case study on the power of public art, the award-winning Beyond Walls would come close. It began with a community consultation around public safety: Three underpasses were badly lit; downtown was a hotbed of substance abuse and violence. Its mural festival jolted a dying city center back to life, and its other projects, like the installation of vintage neon signs and a multicolored lighting system, flooded dark corners with revivifying brightness.
It’s the rare circumstance where idealism and implementation meet, with results you can see. It creates beauty from community consensus — a virtual unicorn in any field. Beyond Walls, whose third street-art festival is attracting throngs in Lynn through Aug. 3, makes public art seem easy. It’s anything but.
In principle, public art should have the public good in mind. It should have time, place, and circumstance close at heart. It should say something about the ground on which it stands and the people forced to negotiate it. It should be sensitive without being mild, bold but not preachy or pedantic. It should know its place, and intimately; it should tell us something new.
In practice, public art is typically a quagmire of competing interests. What’s good and what’s not, especially out there in the big, loud world, means as many different things as there are people to describe them. And public art often splits, uncomfortably, high and low, between what the cognoscenti deem rigorous and worthy and the more grass-roots expressions of a community. The landscape of Greater Boston seems almost to have been designed as a laboratory for these divergent priorities.
Counterpoints to the Beyond Walls ethos aren’t hard to find. In Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus is littered with monumental pieces by big-name conceptual artists such as Sol LeWitt and Olafur Eliasson. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, which turns 10 this year, has been an uneven showcase of local artists and international superstars, including Lawrence Weiner and Ai Weiwei. And pricey developments often choose name-brand artists to give their properties art-world cachet; 401 Park in the Fenway trumpeted the recent installation of Nicole Eisenman’s “Grouping of Works from the Fountain,” for example.
Meanwhile the King Boston organization chose artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group’s “The Embrace” earlier this year for a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, that will embue Boston Common with a shimmering, eerie monument to the civil rights icons.
None of those are public in the literal sense of the word: MIT is MIT, the Greenway and King Boston are independent nonprofits, and high-end development speaks for itself. But the spaces they occupy, nestled among the homes and workplaces of so many thousands, make their civic responsibility no less than that of a local government.
And what of the city of Boston itself? On July 1, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office put out an open call for “transformative public art works,” from which it will choose four and provide up to $20,000 to each. It’s not much — complex installations demanding cranes and construction crews can top $1 million — but it’s a gesture with meaning behind it.
“When we say ‘transformative,’ we mean works that celebrate our diversity and the multiple stories about who we are that don’t always get told,” Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission at City Hall, told me recently.
That means art that moves far beyond Boston’s historic bronzes. We have enough so-called great men on horseback to form a life-size model army (Washington in the Public Garden, Revere in the North End, on and on).
The city has begun to dig deep into the local scene: A series of murals in Dorchester and a vibrantly-painted multicolored piece that covers the whole of Harambee Park’s basketball courts, like a giant abstract composition, that the city helped fund were honored by the Public Art Network Year in Review in June.
So we seem to agree that public art is a good thing. What few of us agree on is, what it is.
I like the way Goodfellow put it: “We have to ask what are these things doing, and what are they for?” she said. “I think it’s something that tells us who we are, what we want to be, and what we value.”
I agree. Art made in public needs to aim higher than simple beautification or diversion. It needs to engage with history, conflict, social stress points — the greater good. The fact that those things all mean different things to different people underscores the heavy freight public art can and should carry: Done right, it can act as a point of communion where differences of opinion comingle, if not resolve. At its best, it can be a proxy for conversations too fraught to otherwise broach.
Often, though, it feels like public art is trying too hard to be liked and ends up feeling harmless and weak. That’s the result of too many cooks: endless committees trying to please everyone and inevitably pleasing few. At its worst, it’s a detached, showy display of art-world clout and fiscal might.
Case in point: When “Resonance,” the new mural project by Dutch street-art superstar Super A went up on the Greenway in Dewey Square earlier this year, I cringed. It’s perfectly painted and painfully literal: two birds, one on a verdant branch, the other amid withered leaves, breaking free from a glass dome.
More glaring was its almost willful disconnect between piece and place, between the artist and the context in which he’d spent countless hours working. It said nothing, to me, about the city, its story, its moment, its challenges; it was so universal as to be meaningless. It made me think he might have been airlifted by helicopter onto a scaffold to paint, and then hoisted back in the air without ever touching the ground.
“The Auto Show,” the Greenway’s 10th-anniversary offering, isn’t much better. Not so long ago, these lush expanses of parkland were elevated lanes of gridlocked highway; “The Auto Show” pokes at that bleak local history with a blithe, light touch. Erwin Wurm, an Austrian artist, is one of its main attractions; his piece looks much like a Porsche partially melted down to resemble a flying saucer. Another, Karl Unnasch, is from the Midwest; his work is a dump truck with stained glass windows that glow from within.
I can’t help but think that, had the same task been handed to artists with deep roots and history here, the treatment would have been that much more powerful and packed with meaning.
To be fair, the Greenway has tried to be a platform for local artists alongside star attractions (Somerville-based Anne Lilly’s “Temple of Mnemon” was on view last summer). But Lucas Cowan, the Greenway’s public art curator, told me it has been a challenge in part due to the circumstances of art-making in the city. Sky-high rents and small studio spaces mean that artists able to operate at public-art scale are few, he said.
It’s a fair point, though the city has no shortage of muralists able to take on the Dewey Square space. But there’s that high-low schism, between what the art-world elites value and what’s considered “community arts.” Listen, when you hear that term, to who’s saying it: For years, “community” has been code for something lesser and unrefined. It’s no coincidence that the cognoscenti dismissed street art until it started to sell (that’s the ethos the art world values over all others). It’s why you’ll see Eisenman’s 401 Park piece covered in ARTnews, while beloved Cambridge muralist David Fichter’s newest work at Salt & Olive Market in Harvard Square, depicting a community dinner and unveiled around the same time, was not.
So what makes a successful piece of public art? I spent some time recently with Kate Gilbert, who in 2015 founded the public art agency Now + There. Gilbert was a project manager for public art at the Greenway, and afterward she remained on its curatorial advisory board until 2017. Now + There covers the gamut. We first met while a construction crew installed one of its projects, “Growth Rings,” an array of arcing wood embedded in the granite pavers of a park on Atlantic Avenue across from the Greenway. It’s a highly conceptual work by Los Angeles-based Oscar Tuazon.
Now + There also runs what Gilbert calls an accelerator, training young artists to work at the scale public art demands.
“I want to be able to say in five years that I trained 20 artists, so that when the Greenway or a developer wants to look local, they’ll be here,” she said.
I like the spirit of this: Take away the excuse. And Now + There can point to success: Silvia Lopez Chavez, a local artist whom Gilbert commissioned to do a massive mural along the Charles River Esplanade in 2017. It was Chavez’s first large-scale public piece. She’s now an artist-in-residence at Google headquarters in California.
In Roxbury, the Boston-based muralist Rob Gibbs (also known as Problak) met us at the foot of “Breathe Life 3,” a Now + There project at 808 Tremont St. The wall erupts with a palpable joy, just a block away from a public housing project: two beaming faces, both of them black, a little girl atop her brother’s shoulders. A cosmic montage surrounds them — clusters of stars, planets.
More than one passerby offers a shoutout; one, an older man, calls Gibbs over and they speak. Gibbs, visibly moved, relays the meat of the conversation. “He said, ‘That’s my brother up there,’ ” the artist says. The man’s brother had gone missing and was never found; the mural, for him, served as a eulogy, cast in a positive glow.
Gibbs, who grew up nearby, says his piece was for the neighborhood — a positive jolt for a patch of the city that endures crime, poverty, gentrification, displacement. If that’s community arts — and to some degree, it is — it’s a solid case for the term to be one of honor, not derision.
Art at its very best makes connections, evokes feeling, builds a bridge between people and places. More than anything, public art needs to connect with the place it lives.
“Underground at Ink Block,” in the South End, may not make any grand political statement — it’s a growing collection of street art under I-93 — but just by being here, in an uncared-for slice of the city, it does. It shows the power of site-specific sensitivity, an old problem exploded with new thinking. The site was leased by National Development Group from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to use as a parking lot.
National rebuilt the dead space into a network of parks and trees, but it still felt barren. Then in 2017, National invited Victor and Liza Quinonez, who run the creative agency Street Theory, to enliven it. Their idea, “a street museum that we can curate over the years, and give people here an opportunity to shine,” said Victor, took off. Now it’s a showcase for street art that puts Boston’s best alongside the best in the world.
Judging by the thousands who turned out one weekend last month for the annual street festival there, it’s working. On a hot Saturday, they saw artists, including Quinonez, who went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and goes by Marka27, make a towering portrait of a young woman in fuschia and turquoise, running the full height of a double-decker support column.
Back in Lynn, the Beyond Walls festival is in full swing. Its artists have been both international and local: Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cambodian, Belarussian, all groups part of Lynn’s immigrant patchwork. “It’s important that the community sees itself up on those walls,” said Beyond Walls board member Carolina Trujillo.
With its grass-roots approach, Beyond Walls is a blazing emblem of the power of culture to resurrect lost places. It built coalitions of the local housing authority and electricians and painters unions, both of which donated money and time. It appealed to MassDevelopment (the state’s economic development authority) and the Barr Foundation, both of which are now partners. (The Boston Globe also a receives a grant from the Barr Foundation to help support coverage of public education in Boston.)
Downtown Lynn still has issues, but now it also has hope. “I know people who hadn’t been to downtown Lynn since they were kids, and they’re in their 60s,” said Kurt Lang, pastor at the East Coast International Church, adjacent to the train station. “They truly believed they would get shot. Now they come down here and they don’t feel unsafe anymore. It’s changed everything.”
When we talk about the power of art to make change, we tend to talk in grand, abstract terms. But change — real change you can see with your own eyes — is rarely so tangible and concrete as it is right here.
It’s a public-art effort crafted in league with the public itself. As definitions go, you won’t do much better than that.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, Carolina Trujillo’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.